How USO Dog Volunteers are Spreading Smiles and Supporting Troops at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda

By Danielle DeSimone

They’re hairy, drool at the sight of food and can get a little too excited to greet you at the front door. And while they might not be the first thing you’d think of when someone says “USO Volunteer,” they are in fact dedicated military supporters who regularly better the lives of service members and military families in need.

Meet the dog volunteers of the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda, who are spreading joy within their local military community, one paw shake at a time.

Why Injured, Ill and Wounded Service Members in Bethesda Need USO Support

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda is unlike your average USO center. Located on Naval Support Activity Bethesda base in Maryland, this USO center is only a 10-minute walk from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Walter Reed is one of the Armed Forces’ most prestigious and expansive medical facilities, and one of the most prominent medical centers in the entire United States.

And although Walter Reed treats more than 1 million active-duty service members, veterans and military family members each year, providing medical care of all kinds, it has become widely known, specifically, for the care it provides to service members wounded in service.

Here, service members requiring extensive surgery or treatment for injuries and illnesses – both visible and invisible – can sometimes spend months at the hospital. Recovery from these wounds or illnesses can be a long and difficult journey for any service member, both physically and mentally, and it can be made even more difficult if they are far from home and loved ones.

That is why the USO built the USO Warrior and Family Center less than a half of a mile away from the hospital. Much like the other USO Warrior and Family Centers located in Virginia, Texas and Germany, the USO center at Bethesda was designed specifically with wounded service members and their families in mind.

Photo credit USO Photo

USO Warrior and Family Centers provide service members recovering at nearby medical facilities with classes in art, cooking, yoga and music to assist them in coping with their recovery process.

This center is meant to serve as a “home away from home” for service members, family members and caretakers visiting in between medical appointments, so they have a comforting place to recharge. In a time of great stress and upheaval, these USO centers were built specifically to provide members of the military community with a place of respite, where they could recover and spend time with one another in a non-hospital environment.

The USO Warrior and Family Center is ADA-compliant, ensuring that all – regardless of their recovery journey – can access the building. It is filled with comfortable couches and chairs, a wood-burning fireplace and tables gathered around a kitchen that is available for families to cook in, or to access snacks and meals from the USO.

There are also video games, televisions and activity rooms. Outside, there is a healing garden, where troops and families can take a moment to relax. And everything – right down to the programs, home-cooked meals and events hosted by the USO center – is provided with injured service members in mind.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Spc. 1st Class Juan Pinalez

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Jared Lenahan shows some of his artwork to a visitor at the 2015 Wounded Warrior Family Symposium at the USO Warrior and Family Center on Naval Support Activity Bethesda. The symposium was a forum for seriously injured or ill service members and their families to share their experiences.

“We try to offer a variety of different types of programs to help our wounded ill and injured service members assimilate back,” said USO Field Programs Specialist Tara Davey.

“We have art therapy programs, sometimes we have cooking programs, music therapy programs … and more recently, something that we have been trying to bring a lot back to our center, are our programs with service and therapy dogs.”

USO Dog Volunteers Deliver Smiles and Boost Morale Among Wounded Service Members

“Hi there, good morning!” Kevin Bubolz cheerfully called out to a service member slowly passing by in a knee brace, as Kevin lifted his golden retriever puppy Emma’s paws and waved hello.

Photo credit USO Photo

Ellie, a therapy dog, and Emma, a therapy-dog-in-training, visit service members and military families at USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda regularly, spreading smiles and boosting morale.

Kevin, his wife Katie and their two dogs – Ellie and Emma – are regular volunteers at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda. Ellie happens to be an Instagram-famous therapy dog and she, along with her owners and her “little sister” and therapy-dog-in-training Emma, are on a mission to spread smiles. They do so both online and in-person through volunteering; the family has a large following on Instagram and TikTok, where Ellie and Emma’s antics are regularly shared with thousands around the world.

But for Kevin, volunteering with the USO in Bethesda alongside his therapy dog Ellie is personal. As an Army veteran, he knows firsthand the challenges that can come with life in the military.

During a deployment to Afghanistan, Kevin’s unit had a service dog named Zac attached to it. Zac accompanied Kevin’s unit throughout their deployment and even rode in his helicopter, boosting morale among the deployed service members. After seeing what a positive impact dogs can have on the military, Kevin returned home and decided to spread happiness in his own community through his dog Ellie.

These dogs are truly considered USO volunteers – they, like all USO canine volunteers, even have their own online profiles within the USO volunteer database system, where they log their hours. The USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda regularly hosts therapy dog events, where service members and military families can spend time with therapy dogs like Ellie and Emma in the comfort of the center.

Upon arrival at the center, Ellie and Emma greet guests, who can pet and play with the dogs and have a moment of fun – and allow them just to relax. The joy they bring to service members and military families alike is evident from the minute people see the dogs in the center.

But it’s not just the smiles that prove the positive effect these dogs are having. Research shows that interacting with animals can make an incredible difference – and improvement – in one’s physical and mental health. Studies have found that petting an animal can lower blood pressure and [release hormones such as phenylethylamine, an anti-depressant. Other studies have shown that after petting animals, people were found to have increased levels of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin – all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods and decreasing anxiety and the feeling of loneliness.

With emotional and mental health listed as some of the top issues that face military families today, the challenges of recovery from illness or injury, and the difficulties military families and caretakers may face in the wake of their loved one’s health issues, utilizing therapy dogs to help service members receiving treatment at Walter Reed is just another creative way in which the USO is supporting the military community.

Knowing that Ellie and Emma will be visiting the USO center “gives the service members something that they can look forward to,” Tara explained. “They know that they can count on seeing Ellie and Emma.”

Ellie the Golden Retriever, an Instagram and TikTok-famous therapy dog, hugs a service member at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda. Ellie, her owners, and her “little sister” (also a Golden Retriever) regularly volunteer at the USO center. | Photo credit USO Photo

“It builds on the idea of the USO center being ‘a home away from home’ because we do get the same two dogs who come every time, so service members can look forward to that,” she said, explaining that many service members plan their visits to the center around Ellie and Emma’s visit schedule.

For those who are far from home and their own family dogs, or perhaps cannot have a dog of their own due to their military service, seeing these therapy dogs in the USO center truly offers service members and military families with a small piece of home, and that can make all the difference.

“I saw firsthand the impact of the USO’s mission while deployed overseas, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to pay it forward,” Kevin said.

USO Bethesda welcomes several types of dogs in its center, including therapy dogs (like Ellie), service dogs and facility dogs. Therapy dogs provide comfort, affection and support to people in locations such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, or disaster areas. Meanwhile, service dogs are trained to do work and perform tasks for an individual handler with disabilities.

And facility dogs are working dogs specifically trained and accompanied by professionals to help more than one person in facilities like hospitals, in a treatment or therapeutic setting. In the case of the NSA Bethesda’s base, there are multiple facility dogs who are trained and work regularly at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

All three types of dogs are regular visitors to both Walter Reed and the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda.

A service member hugs Huck, a service-dog-in-training with Hero Dogs, at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda. | Photo credit USO Photo

For Ensign Kimberly Dodd, a U.S. Navy medical student, volunteering at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda with her service dog-in-training Huck was not only a chance to further train the young Labrador retriever, but also to spread the word on how service dogs can assist service members and veterans in their daily lives.

Kimberly attends the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) and was especially excited to see how the USU Facility Dog Program and Hero Dogs organization, through which Huck is being trained, could reach service members at the USO center on NSA Bethesda. Currently, Huck is in training, but he will one day be a service dog for a veteran of the U.S. military or a first responder with disabilities.

“The program is advocating for animal assisted interventions to kind of show people what these dogs can do, and how you can gain access to a service dog in the future,” Kimberly said.

For many of those receiving treatment at Walter Reed who are visiting the USO center, this introduction to service dogs can be particularly impactful – and perhaps even inspire them to pursue getting a service dog themselves.

“[Volunteering at the USO center] was amazing … There were so many people asking about how you can get a service dog and what qualifies you for it,” Kimberly said. “So, I think that was very helpful.”

Whether they be a therapy dog, service dog or facility dog, all of these canine USO volunteers are having a profound impact on a military community in need of support by boosting morale and providing a sense of comfort to service members and their families.

“At the USO, we like to make our centers feel like [service members] are at a home away from home. I think one of the best ways to do that is to bring therapy dogs into our building,” Tara said. “What is more like ‘home’ than coming to one of our USO centers and having the opportunity to play with some dogs?”

When navigating the challenging path toward recovery, there are many different resources to lean on – but some of the best ones come with a wagging tail.

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